Photo: Justin K. Aller
The Capitals just had their best regular season in franchise history. We thought things might be different in this year’s playoffs, yet here we are again, feeling like we just got run over by a 16 wheeler (that then put itself in reverse, backed over our still twitching bodies, put itself back in drive, and ran us over again).
Let me just spew out a few painful facts that are real, actual things. Alex Ovechkin, this generation’s greatest goal scorer, has never made it past the second round of the postseason. Barry Trotz, this season’s slam dunk Jack Adams Trophy winner, has never gotten past the second round of the postseason. The whole dang Caps franchise has not made it past the second round since 1998. On top of that, this series loss to the Penguins marks the eighth time the organization has lost to the Penguins out of nine tries, which is the worst winning percentage in the NHL among any teams that have faced off 8 times or more. These stats can straight up go to hell.
— Ismail (@imadni) May 11, 2016
So can this chart.
I have no grand conclusions on why this season ended early for the Caps — other than they were really unlucky and not failures in any way. What I do have is a lot of random thoughts and questions, some of which are fun and some of which are miserable. Let’s review.
Because of the NHL’s new playoff format, the Caps faced the East’s second-seeded team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, a round early. If the NHL still reseeded after the first round, the Caps would have played the New York Islanders. Yup. The Isles and Crazy Cal Clutterbuck. That nonsense potentially blocked Washington from a jaunt to the Eastern Conference Finals and even more massive TV ratings for the NHL. It’s stupid.
SB Nation blog Fear The Fin wrote a fascinating article entitled The Washington Capitals and the strange way we view failure on Wednesday. It’s a great read. Here’s a snippet:
Pittsburgh outscored the Capitals by one goal — that’s it. One goal separated those teams over six games but the Penguins won with a game in hand. The possession numbers are just as narrow. Pittsburgh’s score-adjusted corsi-for in round two: 390.9. Washington’s: 384.4. That’s it. A measly 6.5 shot attempts separated the two teams and Washington had 20.4 more scoring chances than the Pens over the series.
That is maddening. Winning and losing in the playoffs comes down to tiny mistakes or puck luck, not big players coming through in the clutch or imposing your will on the other team.
I’ll let Driving Play go further.
Adding to the problem, hockey may be the hardest sport to predict on a game-by-game basis. Whether you look at basic models or betting markets, one trend is blatantly obvious: in hockey, even controlling for everything we know, a vast majority of the matchups have odds between 55/45 and 65/35 either way. 3:1 favorites in a single game don’t happen often, which is why in small samples, we see extreme results.
When you start to ask why, it becomes less and less surprising; hockey is a game of razor thin margins anywhere you look. For example, an above average team is going to control merely 2-4% more shot attempts than a below average one over the course of a season. An above-average goaltender stops one (1) percent more shots than an average one, or one (1) more shot over a sample of 100. If the margins are this thin over 82 games, it’s no surprise that they’re basically non-existent over one game or one playoff series.
Hockey isn’t like basketball, where LeBron James or Seth Curry can put up 40 points a game and will their team to a win. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams that dominate a game can and will lose anyway. Teams that play poorly can win. We saw that a few times in Round One, when the Caps got by mostly due to their power play and goaltending. Playoff hockey is like a sample size gone wrong, and this is why Dan Steinberg called us all masochists. We are.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been without franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury who suffered a concussion on March 31. The Penguins turned to Matt Murray (who is okay I guess). In the Caps’ second round series, Murray was good as Braden Holtby, the league’s likely Vezina Trophy winner this season.
Murray outplayed Holtby a smidge at even strength.
And Holtby outplayed Murray while shorthanded.
In Game Three, Murray made 47 saves, taking over a record that Ken Dryden once owned. He’s in the Hall of Fame.
This is a crazy graphic. pic.twitter.com/8PllBKk9l9
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) May 5, 2016
Now Murray will now be making saves in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Among all goaltenders who have faced more than 1000 shots in the playoffs since goalie stats were tracked, Braden Holtby has the best overall save percentage, a .937. He deserves better.
The Capitals have done everything right. They are getting zone time (shot attempts), they’re getting shot quality (scoring chances), and they’re crashing the net (high danger). They’re just not getting the puck over the goal line.
If you look at the table, you will want to hit yourself in the face with a brick.
Here’s something good. John Carlson was unbelievable in the playoffs. Like the team’s best player.
Carlson scored five goals and tallied 12 points, which tied him for the most in team history among defensemen.
How good has Carly been in the playoffs this year? pic.twitter.com/BwS18f6Cw1
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) May 5, 2016
Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz did the right thing by shutting Carlson down late in the season to have surgery on his nagging injury.
I get it. You love dashboard stats. Me too. We all love sick goals and fancy assists. Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in regular season points. In the playoffs, not so much. He had two points in 12 games, the same amount as Karl Alzner. So clearly Kuzy was the reason for the Caps demise.
Except he wasn’t. His underlying play, measured in shot attempts and scoring chances, was tremendous. According to Pat Holden, Kuznetsov’s offensive production actually increased from the regular season. It’s just that his line’s shooting percentage cratered.
So don’t blame Evgeny Kuznetsov. Don’t worry about Evgeny Kuznetsov (unless you’re worried that he’s going to feel bad because he probably will because he’s Evgeny Kuznetsov and he cares so much). Kuzy’s a great player and he is going to be even better next year. It’s not his first rodeo.
— Matt Hogan (@matthogan712) May 11, 2016
Since signing Brooks Orpik two seasons ago, Barry Trotz and Brian MacLellan have told us about how valuable he is. We’ve heard about how valuable his leadership and grit is. How his physicality makes the team better.
During the playoffs, Alex Ovechkin took that even further. “I think he’s our best D, obviously,” Ovechkin said to NHL.com. “He’s a stay-at-home D, he plays physical, blocks shots. It’s the same like [Karl Alzner], except he’s more involved physically. It’s a huge key for us, especially against those guys like Sid and [Malkin]. We have to make it tough on them. We have to play physical. We just have to dictate our game on them.”
There is literally no one in the analytics community who agrees.
If you put aside the organization’s/mainstream media’s words and the big hits and look at, again, his underlying play, Brooks Orpik is one of the worst defensemen on the Capitals and at age 35 he’s only going to get more ineffective with time. During the playoffs, Orpik got shelled, finishing the playoffs with a 45.5 Corsi For Percentage and a 37.5 Goals For Percentage (+3 / -5). Orpik’s penalty differential was minus-five.
“But the intangibles!” people say. Well, here are two tangibles:
Brooks Orpik is not a top-four defenseman on a championship-caliber team. The Caps should do whatever it takes to free themselves of his contract (a contract they should have never offered him in the first place).
I don’t know anything about the inner-workings of the Capitals or their decision-making for going after certain players. But ever since Brian MacLellan has taken over as general manager, there’s been more of a focus on analytics and that is good. In the fall of 2014, the team hired analytics pioneer Tim Barnes, aka Vic Ferrari.
Last summer, Brian MacLellan added two shot-attempt mavens over the summer in TJ Oshie and Justin Williams. Those two players had a huge impact on the Caps offense, helping lead the team to its second President’s Trophy.
But MacLellan also gave away a third-round pick at the trade deadline for depth defenseman Mike Weber, arguably one of the worst defensemen in the league. Weber in the analytics community is known as Brooks Orpik-lite, a poor skating player who hits people and gets shelled in his own zone. Barry Trotz played Weber over Nate Schmidt, a superior player, in Game Four. Weber, who has weaker puck skills than Schmidt, showed his appreciation by accidentally sweeping a clearing attempt to a Penguins player that led to the OTGWG. That was just one game and one mistake. (Overall that night, Weber played even.)
But my question is: why did the Caps trade for Weber in the first place? I would argue they had better veteran defensemen options in Hershey.
There was a moment during Game Six that made my brain hurt. When Pierre McGuire interviewed Barry Trotz, the Caps’ head coach cited the Penguins’ best attribute being their team speed. In that game, Trotz played Brooks Orpik and sat Nate Schmidt. I don’t even remotely understand the logic there.
Then there’s this part, which NHL.com’s Katie Brown pointed out Wednesday.
Early in the series, Capitals coach Barry Trotz said the playoffs were not the time to teach lessons to players, but then in succession scratched defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt when each made a bad play in a game. This, while defenseman Brooks Orpik was serving a three-game suspension for a hit on Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta in Game 2. Trotz didn’t seem to trust the players that carried the load during the season, when Orpik missed 41 games with a lower-body injury.
Why does Barry Trotz punish younger players for mistakes (who have good underlying play) worse than veteran players who make a mistake (but have bad underlying play)?
Ovechkin-led WASH teams now 5-8 in playoff series. He and Backstrom are common denominators.
— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) May 11, 2016
And here’s why.
@DamoSpin Ted Leonsis is also a common denominator. so is the zamboni driver.
— Ray haluska (@CruisingRay) May 11, 2016
Thanks a lot, zamboni driver.
CSN’s Michael Jenkins drank on air and advised viewers to “give up on your dreams” after the Capitals’ season-ending loss to the Penguins. Same.
The Caps are so lucky to have Justin Williams. Mr. Game Seven scored in another elimination game, helping fuel the Caps Game Six comeback.
Justin Wiliams makes it 3-2! pic.twitter.com/78AZeRmdNe
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) May 11, 2016
With his third-period goal, right wing Justin Williams now has 14 goals in 19 career elimination games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Williams’ average of 0.74 goals per game in elimination games is the third-best in NHL history among players who have faced elimination at least ten times, trailing Hall of Famers Maurice Richards (15 goals in 17 games, 0.88 per game) and Pavel Bure (12 goals in 15 games, 0.80 per game).
With 20 goals and 42 assists, Nicklas Backstrom passed Mike Ridley (60) for third place on the franchise playoff points list. Backstrom recorded 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) in 12 games this postseason.
It was these mad libs by the DC Sports Bog.
— Allie 🦈 (@Alliekay26) May 11, 2016
On their latest album Delusions Of Grand Fur, Rogue Wave asks, “what is left to solve?”
For the Capitals, if you ask me, not much. But it doesn’t mean these things won’t be gnawing at me until October.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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